Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sitting on Top of the World

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and I have something in common: ambition and hubris knocked us both off lofty perches. Although his tumble was from a Mount Everest-sized peak, and mine closer to, well, a molehill, our anguish has similarities.

I’ll explain. Back in 1981, I was hired as a press aide to then-mayor Jane Byrne. I couldn’t have been happier, or prouder of my new assignment. As a lifelong Chicagoan, I relished local politics with all of its Shakespearian drama: treachery, jealousy, greed, and also noble works.

Now, here I was, not on the sidelines, but in the middle of the action. My glee became insufferable, though, as I blathered on about writing speeches, escorting the mayor to groundbreaking ceremonies, dropping off news releases to City Hall reporters (several pictured on this post), riding in the mayor’s limo, and actually entering her inner office after joshing with the security guards posted outside her paneled doors.

And when my workday ended and I was at home watching the evening news, and heard the mayor read my words as she stood at the podium, or at a ribbon-cutting ceremony, my swelled head threatened to topple my 5’ frame.

Alas, from such a high opinion of myself, a downfall was inevitable. My Blago-moment occurred when I was assigned to accompany the mayor to some benign event. Unfortunately, that very morning, a bigger story broke and reporters swarmed the ceremony determined to capture one of the mayor’s infamous quotes.

Along with my writing tasks, another of my roles was to buffer the boss from the tide of microphones, tape recorders, photographers, television cameras, and reporters threatening to flood the city’s diminutive first executive. Problem was, at my wee height, I got shoved aside as easily as a rubber ducky. I stood helpless as Mayor Byrne became engulfed and bombarded with unwelcome questions.

I returned to City Hall dejected, sat hunkered at my desk as she walked into the Press Secretary’s office and closed the door behind her. When I crept up to eavesdrop, I could hear her angry words, “Don’t send Elaine out with me anymore.”

My boss (Was it Ray McCarthy or Steve Crews? I can’t remember.) never actually relayed her decision, I just wasn’t assigned to outside events anymore. Despite that episode, I loved every minute I was a press office employee. And I never blamed the mayor for her ruling. She was right – I couldn’t handle it.

So if I don’t join the crowd damning Gov. Blagojevich’s obnoxious behavior, you’ll understand. I hope he takes this experience as one of life’s lessons. For my part, I learned that a seat at the top of the world could easily be upended when haughtiness overtakes humility. For Rod (since we’re linked, I can use this familiarity), his warning is simpler: stay off the f*@#$%^ phone!

(Pictured are some of the City Hall reporters during the Byrne administration: Ray Hanania, Andy Shaw, Fran Spielman, and Gary Washburn.)


Anonymous said...


when did you grow to five feet???????

I have a daughter who is four feet eleven and always says she is five feet.

I'm six feet but never measured more the five feet eleven, how's that?

Do we lie or exaggerate or does it matter?


Anonymous said...

I can't link the two of you in the boat. You were to little to do the job, a physical limitation that you had no
control over. He is a damn crook and should be put away for along time. I truly think the man has a
mental problem of some kind.

I can understand your disappointment however, and these many years later, I am sorry, but also proud of
the fact that you forged ahead and did not let that set back ruin your life. Many would have defeated and
crawled in a hole.


Anonymous said...


This posting was informative, ( I'm impressed with the job you had)some fun, and inaccurate.I know it was for the base of a story but you have nothing in common with Blago
What a crazy man. Truly a socio path or something. How did he get to be governor and re elected at that. Sounds familiar. W , right?

Danny said...

Fascinating. I remember reading about your Jane Byrne days--what a time. And if that happened today you could sue the city for millions of dollars for blatant heightism. Did Jane ever talk to you about that? She should have at least apologized.

(I bet you weren't anywhere near as insufferable as you claim during that period!)

Anonymous said...

ALWAYS A TOTAL PLEASURE to read your blogs, fellow 5' footer!


She's Not The Type said...

very interesting. i didn't know!!!!


Anonymous said...

i just read your blog!!!! funny picturing you trying to protect her from ravenous reporters.

xoooo jen

Anonymous said...

Cute story. Sending it to Rod?


Anonymous said...

Hi, I really enjoyed your e-mail. WOW!!!!!, all the things I never knew about you, actually I knew nithing about you, just that superfluous party talk, thanks for sharing and the good read, happy holidays and a joyous, productive and healthy new year to you and tommy, all the best, vern

Benbrandt said...

Fun to read! But I don't have high hopes for Blago's humility leveling off anytime soon.

Anonymous said...

Hi Elaine, I always enjoy your stories. It reminds me of my childhood even though it stems from Maxwell street and Albany Park and than Morton Grove. My mother also did not drive and there are so many cute stories of my dad falling asleep in the car outside of the Hillman's at Golf Mill or Mayflower, or Treasure Island waiting for my mother to shop. The days were so different and so much less stress.....

Also I can see how you might have some sympathy for the governor. I guess we all have to remember where we came from and value our lives. I guess he had such a big head that it burst. However, where your story seems dissimilar is he is extremely arrogant and that caught up with him....

Take Care and Happy Holidays....Fern

Elaine Soloway said...

How wonderful! But I remember quite a different Elaine-the-Press-Lady. Though that was a different kind of problem: Wasn't the very large Ruth B. Love the one who knocked over her own staff people in her zeal to jump up grab a headline?! Any headline at all ... Love your pieces and am so glad to be on your list! Ann